Two members of Uganda's parliament have remained locked up for almost eight months as President Yoweri Museveni takes a hard stance against granting ... bail to defendants in one of his latest ploys to curb the opposition.
At a large Chinese-built warehouse on the edge of Semera, the capital of Ethiopia’s Afar region, a group of women collect brooms as they start their early morning shift. They are here to clean the desert dust that is gathering on the tens of thousands of sacks of wheat, pulses and other humanitarian aid supplies that are stored inside.
Some of the supplies are for the Afar region, where recent fighting in the 17 month-long civil war has displaced up to 300,000 people, while most of it is for the embattled Tigray region, a few hundred miles to the north-west. The UN says 4.6 million people there do not have enough food as a result of what it has called a “de facto blockade”.
Tigray has effectively been cut off from the rest of Ethiopia since the TPLF rebel group retook most of it from federal forces in June. Humanitarians have warned of famine and they say 100 trucks of food need to enter the region every day to feed its population, but none has entered there since 14 December.
In its most recent update, the UN reports that food distribution within Tigray has reached an “all-time low”. Last November, farmers were able to harvest their crops, but these stocks are almost finished and there are not enough seeds or fertilisers for the planting season that starts in April.
“It’s been more than three months without trucks and even before that, very few were getting in,” says an aid worker in Addis Ababa. “We know people are resilient, but resilience has its limits, and I really fear they are being pushed to the very edge.”
Earlier this month, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is from Tigray, said “there is nowhere on earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than Tigray”.
Banking services are down across the region and government employees have not been paid in months. Some people have managed to access cash from aid workers, who are allowed to bring in small amounts of money each week, but that route is now appears to be closed: no cash has been flown into Tigray since 10 March. Locals also rely on credit or use money dealers with access to foreign bank accounts and who charge extortionate fees.
Soaring prices, looting, vandalism
Meanwhile, prices for staples like cooking oil have soared by up to 500%. Looting and vandalism by warring parties have knocked out 54% of the region’s water points, which means 3.5 million people have no access to safe drinking water. The government has slapped restrictions on spare parts badly needed to repair pumps, according to aid workers.
“The situation is very dire,” a Mekelle resident tells The Africa Report. “We are witnessing malnourished children on the streets. The number of beggars is increasing – most of them are displaced people who are not getting any aid. The crisis is worsening every day, it is really devastating.”
If the political will existed, they would find a way to get it in by road.
The government blames the TPLF, saying its recent offensive into Afar has cut the desert road that runs through the border town of Abala and connects Semera to Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. It has also accused the rebel group of looting hundreds of trucks that brought in humanitarian aid supplies.
Some aid workers question these claims. Speaking to The Africa Report, one of them says that many of the drivers who are Tigrayan did not return from the region because they faced harassment on the road from communities in Afar. The source adds that some trucks were also not granted permission to take enough fuel to make the return journey and were therefore stranded in Tigray.
“That’s why many did not return,” the source says. “The accusation that the TPLF looted those trucks, I don’t think that is accurate.”
Another humanitarian worker says there are “at least five” other roads into Tigray, including from the Amhara region to the south. UN officials have requested permission from the Amhara government to use these roads to deliver aid supplies, but so far it has not been granted.
“If the political will existed, they would find a way to get it in by road,” the humanitarian worker says. “I don’t underestimate that there are genuine difficulties, but it wouldn’t be the first place in the world where people have managed to drive aid across frontlines.”
The humanitarian worker adds that his agency has to wade through Kafkaesque bureaucratic procedures in order to bring in items into Tigray, such as spare parts – procedures that do not apply to projects in Amhara and Afar. “It means everything gets stuck in Addis [Ababa] as we have to bounce from ministry to ministry,” he says. “I view it as deliberate obstruction.”
On 24 March, the federal government declared an immediate “humanitarian truce” that it said would pave the way for aid to roll into Tigray. So far, no aid trucks have departed Semera for Tigray. On Tuesday, the government said this was “due to the closure of the Abala Road by TPLF militants”.
The federal government has given the go ahead, but communities in Afar don’t want the convoys going in [to Tigray]. Until we get them on board, we’re not moving anywhere.
Even so, two UN officials said the aid supplies were not moving yet because the World Food Programme was concerned about potential attacks on its trucks from communities in Afar. Several WFP convoys carrying aid items to Tigray have been blocked and even looted by locals in the region, including in mid-March when several WFP drivers were assaulted.
“It’s pretty much at a standstill because of the situation in Afar,” says another aid worker in Addis Ababa. “The federal government has given the go ahead, but communities in Afar don’t want the convoys going in [to Tigray]. Until we get them on board, we’re not moving anywhere.”
“Not enough supplies”
The UN and the Red Cross have flown 221.8 metric tonnes of medical supplies into Mekelle, but this amounts to just 4% of what is needed. An official at Tigray’s flagship Ayder hospital says its 3,000 staff have not been paid since July and are going hungry as they cannot buy food.
“The situation is bad,” the official says. “Some medicines are coming in, but they are not enough to sustain the population of 6 million. It is a drop in the ocean.”
The official adds that patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancers, were developing complications from a lack of treatment. “People are dying,” the official says. “They are coming to the hospital for help, but there are not enough supplies to treat them… The cardiac and cancer centres are not functioning. Dialysis is starting, but it is not fully functioning yet. Some of the services that are running may have to be closed again unless there’s a continuous supply.”
A humanitarian worker says the situation is even worse in remote areas. The mobile health clinics that their organisation operates are only able to visit 25% of their usual locations owing to a lack of fuel. “And even then, they don’t have enough nutrition and health supplies.”
It is not clear how many people have died of starvation in Tigray. In November, a study by local doctors and researchers found that 186 children under five had died from severe acute malnutrition in 14 hospitals in Tigray, but this could be an underestimate since many families are unable to reach health centres in cities due to a lack of transportation.
A WFP assessment published in January found that 13% of children under 5 as well as 50% of pregnant and breast feeding mothers in Tigray were malnourished. Three quarters of the families that the agency surveyed were resorting to “unsustainable coping strategies” measures, such as reducing portion sizes or cutting back on daily meals.
“It is heart-breaking,” says the Mekelle resident. “Nobody has anything. You see friends who are struggling and you want to help them, but you can’t. I don’t know how long we can go on.”
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